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Hackathons Are Today’s Most Powerful Recruiting Tool

by
Alex Mooradian
Sep 4, 2013, 6:45 am ET

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 3.27.24 PMThe secret weapon in tech recruiting today is the hackathon. Most notably on college campuses the mega-hackathon has emerged as the top event for sourcing quality engineers. What started as friendly meetups organized by on-campus tech clubs has evolved into massive and disruptive hackathons with more than 1,000 students participating and companies like Facebook and Google swarming to shell out tens of thousands of sponsorship dollars. But not everyone has bought into the frenzy and some are maintaining an autonomous and even purist approach.

Hackathon as Recruiter

The largest student run hackathons in terms of attendees will be hosted this fall by University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, and MIT. Often held prior to the traditional career fairs, these events are promoted as ways to gain early access to the top engineering students on campus at the start of the recruiting season. The 24 to 36-hour intense competitions are touted as fun, educational, and yield large cash sponsored prizes (in some cases more than $3,000). The events are coordinated by students and draw hundreds to thousands of eager students.

UPenn’s PennApps was the first mega-hackathon and set the bar high in terms of event organization and quality of attendees. Participating sponsor companies like Venmo took notice. Word spread quickly among tech recruiters and student groups. A group of students from the University of Michigan actually “crashed” PennApps and then returned to campus to host its own MHacks. Each event seems to build on the last, and this year MHACKS will have more than 1,000 students hacking from within its renowned Michigan football stadium, “The Big House.” HackMIT carries with it the branding of Massachusetts Institute of Technology as the top ranked engineering school, and has entered the melee for “top hackathon,” even going as far to recruit a rapper to profess their status as No. 1.

Between hackathon organizers there’s a friendly sense of competition and collaboration, but for attendees, securing a spot can be challenging. Registration for some events maxed out within 24 hours. All of this bodes well for interested sponsors who are guaranteed, depending on their sponsorship levels, to be able to send teams to work alongside the hackers at the event, give presentations on their product, and in general see the students in action and ultimately recruit them.

The Branded Hackathon

Some companies see value in participating in both the student-run hackathon as well as their own company-branded events. Evan Zacks of Barracuda Networks says that it will be hosting its own bot competition at University of Michigan for the third year in a row in addition to sponsoring MHacks. The private event has grown from 50 engineering students to more than 100 last year. And while the space on campus for these type of events is getting a little crowded, Zacks is not concerned, as he ha been repeatedly told their competition is a student favorite. For Barracuda, the return on attracting only engineers and having the spotlight as host is worth it. The teams observe the students interacting with their bot software, asking questions, and problem solving. “It’s a highly insightful tool to see who might do well to join our team.” says Zacks.

Other companies like Amazon AWS and GoDaddy are snapping up lead sponsorship opportunities for events like SignalFire’s University Hacker Olympics. During this unique event, company sponsors can give tech talks and bring teams of their engineers to work alongside a group of 100 carefully vetted students from across 35 universities.

The venture capital community has also taken notice of the recruiting power of hackathons. Greylock Partners completed its second annual summer Hackfest for 170 top engineering interns. Julie Deroche, director, university talent, at Greylock says “Greylock Hackfest provides a rare opportunity for students to meet, network, and compete in front of an impressive panel of judges. From judges to mentors to teams, we only take the very best.”

Hackathons As Pure Evangelist

But some companies continue to view hackathons are purely a means to educate and propel their brand. The recruiting that happens is just an added benefit. For example, Alex Donn, senior marketing manager for the AT&T developer program, uses hackathons as an opportunity to promote the company’s partners and engage existing customers. For Donn’s Hackathon series, the recruiting aspect is a natural occurrence but not the main focus. “The sign of a successful event is when the CTO reports back that the hackathons have created goodwill,” said Donn. The company is excited by the growth of hackathons for students and their output, but for now remains focused on developer education as its primary goal.

The list of student centered hackathons continues to grow and the recruiting calendar looks full. The true test in seeing if the hackathon can continue to deliver top candidates will be measured in the number of offers made prior to the traditional career fairs. Both students and company sponsors will undoubtedly be watching.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. K.C. Donovan

    I love this post!

    It was about ten years ago that a tech company rented a billboard near the MIT campus with only an equation and an email address to reply with an answer…those who could solve the problem were cultivated for possible employment…

    Fast forward to today and we’ve evolved this idea into group competitions – its quite an evolution! As someone involved in promoting group based digital interaction for employment branding, team based assessment and social recruiting – it seems to me that we are just scratching the surface to the promise that Hackathons represent. Why limit them to college students? Why aren’t companies organizing and sponsoring corporate hackathon competitions for working coders and engineers? I could imagine teams from the iconic tech companies all facing off for cash rewards and bragging rights.

    It’s great to see Michigan, MIT and Penn compete – and the University Hacker Olympics is very cool, but wouldn’t Team Google want to leave the teams from Microsoft, Facebook and Apple in the dust…I obviously get the attraction of going after students, but the recruiting and branding potential for more experienced hackers would be off the charts!

  2. Rob Mallery

    I love this post as well! Thanks Alex!!

    @KC Excellent points! The “Google vs Facebook vs LinkedIn vs Amazon vs smaller firms (Pivotal, 37 Signals, Fog Creek etc) is one of those “Post-It Notes” on our wall for the past couple years. A “Developer Throwdown” or “Engineering Cage Match” would be tons of fun.

    We’re attending/sponsoring the University Hacker Olympics and sending a couple of our guys out to SF to hack with 4 students on a team. ReadyForce and SignalFire are doing a great job of putting that together!!

    Also, to your point about organizing corporate hackathons, it’s happening more and more. We have done our “BallmerPeakathon” several times and it’s always a fun time for our engineers and invited guest developers/designers. It’s always amazing to me what the guys can produce in a few short hours!

    Let’s keep the hackathons rolling!!

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